Toyota Motor’s Vision of Visibility Draws Sight-Seekers at IW’s Best Plants Conference

April 24, 2013
Visibility is a shared experience at Toyota Motor’s 10 U.S. plants.

I just flew back from Greenville, SC after covering IndustryWeek’s Best Plants conference and boy, are my arms tired. That’s a takeoff on an old joke, but the conference itself dealt with some pretty serious issues. And my arms did get a workout from helping my IW colleagues drag extra chairs into a room where idea-hungry industry executives were queuing up to hear about improving their vision. Visibility is a key concern for any supply chain executive and it’s only as good as his or her worst site. In many cases that’s the plant where the things that are supposed to flow through their chain get made.

The guy they came to hear didn’t represent IndustryWeek’s traditional audience, meaning engineering executives and managers. Trever White is the kind of guy you go to for a primer on getting a holistic view of your enterprise’s operations. He’s an information systems manager. He happens to manage IS for Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing in North America. The drawing power of  “Toyota” and “visibility” in the session’s title speak volumes about industry’s key pain point.

White is in the process of addressing that problem for 10 plants in the U.S., employing 2,8000 team members across sales, engineering and manufacturing. He also oversees IS for two Canadian facilities and one in Mexico.  His success is measured by how well his IT team engages with the business and the business managers with whom he works also get graded on how well they participate with IT on business case engagement. He told his overflow audience that such mutual dependence in focusing on visibility is resulting in nice successes.

Ultimately, the focus of visibility at Toyota is getting quality right the first time.

“We want to make sure that problems are made very clear and that people understand what we need to do about it,” White said. “Our legacy system wasn’t doing that so well. Our approach is to use visual controls so no problems are hidden.”

That was a tall order because Toyota Motor’s legacy plants had old visualization systems. Information boards told what was up and down on the lines but didn’t indicate top defects, or drill down quickly to help associates understand where problems were so they could be fixed quickly.

White’s IT team partnered with Rockwell Automation to provide an enhanced reporting capability to unlock manufacturing machine data and collect fault information to support better decision making and problem identification, and to provide analytics for historical reporting and training.

This was a new role for IT, White explained, because in the past it was the responsibility of Toyota Motor’s planning engineering group.  

“We’re going on a new journey with them to make sure roles and responsibilities are clear,” White explained.

What better way to clarify responsibilities than using a Rubik’s Cube to illustrate it? That’s just what White asked his audience visualize, because achange to any of the “sides” he outlined  can indirectly change the others.

The first side is business leadership. Toyota Motor’s group leaders were complaining about the systems IT was delivering. They wouldn’t let them focus on being out on the production line. So IT’s focus became providing tools to allow group leaders to be more efficient .

The second side is a business architecture that helps managers  look at things from an end-to-end perspective.

The third side is business intelligence. Toyota Motor has a lot of data tucked away in different systems. IT’s opportunity is to unlock that data and provide a single end user reporting tool to visualize data in a more “humanized” way.

The fourth side is manufacturing and operation support. IT works with the plants to understand where there may be opportunities to improve the systems supporting the plant floor.

The fifth side is a framework to help IT quickly develop local systems unique to the individual plants. Before, these plants were developing their own systems without involving White’s IS team.

Side six is plant visualization via a centralized enterprise manufacturing tool and process. The focus is to get quality right the first time.

“We want to make sure that a problem is made very clear and that we know what to do about it,” he said. “Our legacy system wasn’t doing that so well.

White and his team are still on this visibility trek for Toyota, and his presentation was more of a progress report than a done deal. But he did offer the following advice to help the crowd listening to him take some ideas back home to draw a crowd of interested listeners of their own:

Start by building strategic partnerships and convincing the corporate powers that this is not just about going to training or even getting on-the-job training. It’s about looking at each associate as an individual with their own set of productivity challenges and making sure they’re being trained to recognize and deliver needed innovations to their plant.

That needs to be followed by business engagement. For Toyota Motor that turned into an “IT Expo” White’s team developed for all of its plants. That included posters at all the sites illustrating the technology implementations IT is working on. That leads to good feedback from both the executives and the associates on the plant floor, White concluded.

Results for Toyota ?  At its Alabama engine plant (which had about 2400 hours of production downtime in one nine-month period)   they’re estimating $500,000 annual savings by having a real-time visualization of operations enabling a more proactive, predictive model. Their goal is to capture 100% of the production downtime and eliminate non-value-adding work.

And let’s not forget logistics. Toyota Motor’s internal logistics management system allows managers to track parts just in time and provide poka-yoke reports all the way to the assembly line. This is a lean manufacturing concept that helps an equipment operator avoid mistakes by preventing, correcting or drawing attention to human errors as they happen. Andon signs at the dock help workers know which trucks need to be unloaded first for lineside delivery.  This progress-based vs. production-plan-based approach results in $9 million in cost savings per year.

This project, like life, is a journey for Toyota Motor. While they do have a destination in mind, what they’re learning along the way is giving them—and everyone with whom they share their roadmap—some valuable insights.

About the Author

Tom Andel Blog | former Editor-in-Chief

As editor-in-chief from 2010-2014, Tom Andel oversaw the strategic development of MH&L and, bringing 30+ years of thought leadership and award winning coverage of supply chain, manufacturing logistics and material handling. Throughout his career he also served in various editorial capacities at other industry titles, including Transportation & Distribution, Material Handling Engineering, Material Handling Management (predecessors to MH&L), as well as Logistics Management and Modern Materials Handling. Andel is a three-time finalist in the Jesse H. Neal Business Journalism Awards, the most respected editorial award in B2B trade publishing, and a graduate of Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University.

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